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Write a Better Headline When You Answer One Simple Question

Award-winning writer Kathy Widenhouse has helped hundreds of nonprofits and writers produce successful content and has gained 600K+ views for her writing tutorials. She is the author of 9 books. See more of Kathy’s content here.

Updated 7.1.24

I’m on a perpetual quest for ways to write a better headline. 

If you’re a blogger or content writer, I bet you’re on the same mission. That little snippet at the top of your blog post, article, webpage, caption, or email subject line is super-important because it either pulls a reader into your content … or has zero impact. If she doesn’t read the headline, then she won’t move into your blog post or article or email. 

Talk about pressure! Once you understand that the headline-writing process can tip the balance, you devour every bit of training you can find to write a better headline. Plenty of gurus offer rules to help: weave in specific keywords that are appropriate to the piece … limit your headline to a specific number of characters or words (depending upon the publishing platform) … use emotional, urgent, enticing, engaging, benefit-oriented language … wrap up the headline in a tidy formula that has proven to attract a reader …

Choosing the right words for your headline can become almost an obsession. It’s a wonder that any of us publishes anything. And even more miraculous that readers actually get past my headlines.

Use the Blank Sheet of Paper Test to write a better headline with Word Wise at Nonprofit Copywriter #WritingTips

Write a Better Headline When You Ask (and Answer) Just One Question

When I feel myself getting wrapped up in this rule-following frenzy – or if I simply want to assess my headline’s readability –  I call upon digital marketer Ian Lurie’s simple tactic: The Blank Sheet of Paper Test. The test is actually just one question. It sifts through all the headline rules and gets to the heart of the matter.

The Blank Sheet of Paper Test:

If you wrote your headline on a blank piece of paper and showed it to a stranger, would she understand it?

This one simple question distills my headline writing confusion. My headline and nothing else – is it clear?  If a stranger cannot understand the headline, then a reader won’t. 

Write a Better Headline Using the Test

Let’s put the tactic into practice by writing a headline for the content in this post. How’s this?

Headline #1: It’s a Piece of Cake

What’s a piece of cake? Or does the headline indicate an article about chocolate cake? A stranger would not have a clue. I tried to write a headline that showed how easy it can be to write a headline, but it’s confusing and vague. This headline neglects to identify the main topic and avoids any hint of a keyword. Blank Sheet of Paper Test score: 0.

What about this?

Headline #2: Writing Headlines is a Piece of Cake

This headline has a bit more specificity. Clearly, a stranger would know that the article content will be about writing headlines. But unfortunately, a stranger would be misled because the headline makes a claim that isn’t true. Anyone who has been a writer for longer than five minutes knows that writing headlines is anything but a piece of cake. This headline is another Blank Sheet of Paper Test fail.

Headline #3: This Simple Tool Makes Writing Better Headlines a Piece of Cake 

Useful? Yes, I definitely want to know about a tool that helps me to write better headlines. Unique? Yes, there’s one simple tool. Urgent? You betcha. I write headlines every day and I always want tips to make the process more fun, easy, and creative. Specific? Yes. It’s clear we’re not talking about a simple way to clean the oven or change the oil in my motorcycle. (Here's a detailed explanation of writing headlines that are useful, unique, urgent, and specific.)

If a stranger read this headline on a blank sheet of paper, he’d understand it.

Use the Blank Sheet of Paper Test for your next project. You'll write a better headline. And strangers will understand it, too.

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The 9 Most Surprising Places You Need a Powerful Headline ...

Does your headline do its job?

See more tips on our Writing Headlines Pinterest board...

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